Friday, January 8, 2016

Fiction Friday: Wolfsblood

Amalric of Thornwood was bone-tired. Everything hurt. He'd spent the week hauling bodies, lime, and fuel for fires. His clothes were torn to shreds and covered in the spew of the sick. Bertar and Rye alone still lived from their once merry company. Millon's face had been black on the day he was tossed into the tomb-pit. Amalric's eyes betrayed the broken silence of his heart, but the plague had passed. "What will we do now?" asked Bertar as they chewed on old black bread. Amalric couldn't focus on the question. He stared at the flagstones below his feet.

They were seated on the far steps of the temple yard, facing the river. Behind them, the last vestiges of the plague's misery was winding its way through the temple grounds. The last to fall ill were busy noisily dying in its shadowy halls. It was Rye who cautiously spoke the dark words nesting in Amalric's soul. "Your father was with the Highlord... like as not, you are the Lord of Thornwood now, Rick."

This awful realization, once spoken, could not be taken back. It was a cloak of muffling darkness that threatened to smother them. Amalric hung his head. His father was probably drowned in the Rudd. He stared at his boots. The smell of burning wood washed over them as the wind changed direction.

Bertar threw away his bread, tossing it into the river. Amalric turned to him angrily, but before he could reprimand his friend, Bertar fell to one knee. Rye suddenly surged to his feet and did the same. Fat tears rolled down Amalric's cheeks. "I'm not yet even a knight," he croaked. His voice was hoarse.

"You are our lord," Rye said. "We swear you service as your men."

Amalric placed his hands upon his friends' shoulders. "Get up," he whispered.

Bertar shook his head. "First take our pledge, lord."

"I do. Of course I do." Amalric tightly closed his eyes. His whole body shuddered. He sank back down to the broad steps. "Priest and prophet."

For Robart, the news of Highlord Marten's defeat was no more devastating than anything else that had come and gone within the past months. His life had become unmoored from everything that made sense to him. Two days after Troylus recovered, Robart went to him for advice. The astrologer had taken up residence in the high temple with the sick. He had joined the legions of prelates and canons aiding those afflicted by the flux. As a survivor, it was known that he could not be infected a second time.

"Teacher Troylus," Robart greeted him. The canon was busy washing the body of a shivering woman. Robart turned his eyes away, diverting his gaze from her sickly breasts and trembling hands. "I came to ask your advice."

"Go on, goodman Robart," said Troylus. Already he was looking better. The empty flesh of his face was beginning to fill out. His eyes had lost their haunted glassiness. "Ask away." His hands were steady as they laved the woman's fevered form.

Robart bowed his head and took a deep breath. "I don't know what to do. But I fear my use here is ending. If Highlord Marten is dead then there's nothing holding me here... or at Oldcastel."

Troylus nodded. His eyes were only for his work. Gently, gently, he moved the cloth over the woman's arms. With tender care, he scrubbed off the stains and dirt. "Aye, Robart, that's so."

"So what do the stars say?" Robart asked at last. He felt a surge of shame well up in his breast. Star-seeing was frowned upon as a tool of the daimoni and the vanished drakeir, something evil to tie the Faithful soul to the chains of the World of Sorrow. Still, Troylus was a teacher himself, blessed by the Faith. Surely it couldn't all be evil.

The older man laughed softly at Robart's question. "The stars do not speak. They move us, whether we will or no. But if your question is what you should do, goodman Robart, then mine to you is thus: What is it in your heart to do?"

"Go home." Robart spoke almost without hesitation. A part of him wanted to stay near Sister Soera, but the greater balance simply wanted peace, quiet, and the familiar feel of earth in his hands. "If there's still a home to go to."

The canon didn't seem surprised.

Robart thought on this for hours beneath Ogust's Stone. His eyes crawled over the ancient monument, touching each crevice but seeing nothing. The columns of morning light illuminating the plaster ceiling above slowly tilted and shifted, until they were falling straight down upon the stone. At last, more troubled in heart than before, Robart rose and wandered outside.

Kingsbrook had been two cities before the plague: the sacred close and the town without. Now, the pilgrims were mostly in the tombyard or the lime pits. The close was deserted save for the surviving priests and the few townsfolk who'd made it through. Most were gathered on the flagstones or the steps before the massive double doors of the temple. The High Prelate was standing in their midst, dressed in all his finery.

Coren the Younger wore a heavy white robe and a brilliant purple mantle. Both were made with Eastern brocade and sewn through with gold and silver. A solar circle of heavy red gold, inlaid with garnets and a single bloody ruby, hung from his chest. His fingers clung to a fine staff of inlaid wood with a silver head. Robart blinked at the gaudy display: here was gathered more wealth than all the gold tilled up in all the fields in all kingdom.

"The miasma has passed," said he, in a stentorian voice. The columns of the close echoed back his words. "The fires of sickness have burned out. From this moment on, the pilgrims are welcome again in Kingsbrook. And more, the wounded fleeing the Skraeling menace will be given permanent homes here. By my decree on this day, the guesting houses will be turned over to their use until the invaders should be driven from our shores. More, three new such will be built. And the relics smashed beneath Gaudulf's dome will be translated here to Kingsbrook." Robart glanced at Archprelate Corricus, to see if he was fuming. The old man's eyes were closed.

"In return," said the High Prelate, "We shall send to Saint Gaudulf's none other than Gaudulf's skull and crown, to be properly venerated by pilgrims on their way to Oldcastel. The Faith will not die out here, in this dark hour. A candle has been lit, and fostered by the Hieros and the Autarch, which shall never perish." The High Prelate raised his staff and clacked it three times against the stone. On the third, the bells of Kingsbrook Temple began to peal, thundering across the countryside. The Faith was unbent in its struggles.

Tables were laid for the survivors. The close was opened to traffic from the town. Robart was served fish soup with black bread, eels, and turnips. Vinegar-boiled leeks and cabbage were spooned into his bowl at the end of the line. He searched for friendly faces to sit by; the squire Amalric was too morose to trouble, Troylus was not out and about... and there was Sister Soera, angelic and daimonic both, with her fair hair cropped short behind her ears, her wimple in her lap. There were other canonnesses with her. Robart hesitated.

"Goodman Robart!" she called. She made eye contact with him. A thrill of fear shivered through his heart and troubled the cage of his chest. He waved weakly at her. He was forced to wind through the knots of seated eaters: canons, prelates, pilgrims, townsfolk, wounded soldiers. When he reached Soera and her sisters, his heart thundered fit to burst. What would he say to her? Nothing, nothing, nothing yet, he decided. He would wait and hold the line like an Eastern shieldman until the last moment arrived. Only then would he tell her his plan.

They ate in silence. Though Robart would once have found this unnerving, weeks in the service of the High Prelate had taught him patience during mealtime. The sisters were used to it. They followed the old Bagahnic rule in Saint Gaudulf's and all the houses of archprelates throughout the kingdom. The low hum of conversation washed over him as Robart dreamed, eyes open, of returning to Hazelby. In his waking dreams, Robart saw himself happy and content on the land. There was no more Dominion gold to shatter his peace.

At last, when the meal was done, Sister Soera took him by the arm and led him through the enclaves and cloisters of the pilgrim's city. It was slowly coming back to life with the end of the plague. Already, there were pilgrims shuffling through its outer walks, between the High Prelate's palace and the guesthouse. The telltale glimmer of silver changed hands as they purchased badges from the canons. Visitors to Kingsbrook Temple were given a little cloak-broach in the rough unhewn shape of Ogust's Stone to remind them of their journey.

"I see that you've made friends with Master Teacher Troylus," she said gleefully. A finger poked him in the ribs.

Robart grunted. "He's an astrologer. I thought that wasn't allowed?"

Sister Soera shrugged and sat her wimple upon her brow. "What is and isn't allowed depends on who and where you are. The whole Faith is busy attacking Piers of Swornstone these days. They don't have time for people like Troylus, who don't really upset anyone."

"Who's that?" Robart asked.

Sister Soera stopped and gave him a sidelong look. It was one of those strange, clever looks that she sometimes saved for him. They felt like hot knives sliding into his heart. Her smile, little, secret, was a blazing beacon. "I sometimes forget the world you come from," she confessed. "He's a priest in the king's... the queen's service. He wrote a book that many find troublesome." There was a pause as Robart tried to digest this information, but it was as far from his experience of life as wearing a sword and calling on ladies.

"What will you do, when the plague subsides?"

Soera looked around sadly at the grounds. "Return to Saint Gaudulf's with the archprelate, I suppose, though I am loathe to leave this place." It took her a moment to realize that Robart's future was not so clearly staked out. "And you?" she asked, her voice betraying her excitement. "What will you do?"

Now that it came to it, he did not want to say those words to her. He did not want to tell her that he was going to return to Hazelby, come daimon or darkness, and pursue the hand of Aethelwyn. The words stuck in his throat. They clung to him like imps. "I—" he began, and failed again. I, what? Will go into the maw of the Skraels because that is where I've always been? It seemed so feeble. "I was hoping I could accompany you." His heart was singing, tuned tight as a bowstring.

"With me? To Saint Gaudulf's? I know the archprelate would be glad of your service." She giggled. "I'd not have taken you for a canon, Robart, though now in those robes..." She plucked playfully at his cord belt.

"A canon?" He frowned. "No, I meant..."

It was Sister Soera's turn to pause. She stopped, half-turned, the light falling on her temples. Her hair was all aglow, as though the Divinity shone from within her. Her eyes searched his face. "What... did you mean, goodman Robart?"

"I meant," he said again, and now these words too caught, but he forced them through. They raked his throat like claws. "I meant that I care for you, Soera, and I'd be honored to go where you go..."

Soera pushed away from him. He could see her breast rising and falling in quick, shallow breaths. "Do you jest with me, Robart?" she asked. He shook his head, but he already knew that was the wrong answer. His eyes were filled with tears. She looked away. "I... I know not what to say. Except that this attention is unlooked for, unasked for, and cannot be returned."

"I do not know what to do without someone to care for other than myself," he blurted. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry! I did not, I know you're a canonness, and even where you not I am a farmer who should know better than—Soera. Soera!" She fled him, as the hart flees the hunter. Her sandaled feet slapped against the stones. It was the sound of drumming rain. It is no more than I deserve.

That made up his mind for him. His place wasn't here. It was at Hazelby. He turned away and bowed his head. Though he was decided, he didn't know he was to make his way back. He had no food, and no traveling companions to boot. So it was that he ran into Amalric full tilt. The young squire, startled, held him out at arm's length. "Robart," the boy murmured vaguely. "Goodman," he added after a moment.

"Master Amalric. I'm... have you seen Teacher Troylus? I need to go back home. To the farm."

Amalric stared at him. "Home? To your town at Hazelby? But what of the Highlord?"

"The harvest..." Robart said lamely. But Amalric wasn't listening. He was simply nodding to the two boys that lurked behind him.

After a moment, Amalric turned back and clasped Robart around the shoulder. "We're going to Seapoint, Robart. You're in luck. We can go with you as far as Hazelby, or until we discover the Lady Sorrel and her knights."

Amalric, Rye, and Bertar were intent on leaving the city within the week. Troylus helped them gather enough food and wine for the journey. Archprelate Corricus gave Amalric his blessing. Robart avoided talking to him, so fearful was he that the prelate would chastise him for his words to the sister. When the cascade of bells rang out dawn on the third day, Amalric and his train were ready to go.

"Good thing to travel with a big stout farmer," Bertar said to Robart. "You'll probably scare off any Skraels just with the look of you. Oughta get you a walking staff or length of wood. You'd be enough to knock any knight down."

"My thanks," Robart said, confused, as they passed through the Highgate of Kingsbrook close. The High Prelate's palace loomed over them, all pilasters and filigreed stonework. Robart ducked his head when they passed beneath the statue of Ogust that adorned the lintel. First High Prelate of Yewland, he who spread the Faith to the Southold. His belief in the goodness of the church fathers was simple, uncomplicated, and pure. Ogust was a saint, like good King Gaudulf. He, Robart of Hazelby, was a sinner propelled by lust and infatuation, his very body a gateway to the daimoni.

Reports from the wounded were confused and tangled. No one knew where to begin looking for the remains of the highlord's army. Some said he had tried to cross into Ruddsmouth. Others insisted that they had been marching into Redmarket or Clerkenwall. "Why would the highlord cross the Rudd, though, Rick?" Rye asked as they threaded through the old brick buildings of Kingsbrook. "I haven't heard of the Clerk raising his forces."

Highlord Lyden of Clerkenwall was not known for his bravery in war. Even Robart knew his reputation. The man was a cowering cleric, dragged from his cloister when his elder brothers died in the Skathi raids of the 1090s. "Can you believe, of all the good men who died at Crowstone, that Lyden survived?" Bertar asked, a sneer on his lip.

Robart had no interest in this. He watched his leather shoes tread upon the old Dominion streets as they left the city. Amalric seemed to grow taller as they approached the road back to Seapoint. He wore his sword with pride. "This is all my land, now," he said softly. Robart perked up his ears.

"Your land?" asked he.

Amalric nodded solemnly. "I would ask you to stay, as my servant, Robart, if I could. But I think you'd not appreciate going into battle with me. My father," he said by way of explanation, "was Lyle of the Thornwood. This was his demesne. Well, all that which doesn't belong to the temple."

"Your father is dead, lord?"

Rye looked hard at Robart, his face set in a grim line. "Most likely, friend Robart. He fought with the Highlord at the Rudd crossing. You heard those men back there. If not dead, at least captive."

"If he is a captive," Amalric said firmly, "I will redeem him. But first, we must find Lady Sorrel and rally to her banner. If the highlord is alive, we must bring him safely to Oldcastle. Either way, we must uncover the lay of the land."

Robart nodded. The concerns of lords were military and dynastic, far outside his limited experience. He was, at heart, a simple man, and he longed to return to the time before his involvement with the doings of the great and good.

They went quickly through the little towns of the Pinedown. Amalric displayed the highlord's seal as they went, and announced himself as lord. His father's seal he did not have, but the town fathers recognized his dress and the lord's badge, the pine surmounted by three crowns. They were given lodging in barns and knight's halls each night. News of the battle grew more confused as they traveled east. What became clear, however, was that Highlord Marten had attempted to cross the Rudd to escape a pursuing Skraeling army from Seatower. This, Amalric determined, had to have been at Tidewater, the only place where the river could be crossed east of Redmarket.

"The Tidewater crossing only appears when the water is drawn out to sea, and then only part of the month," he told the others. "It lies just before the borderland with Seapoint, and would be a fine place for a pirate ambush, if that's truly what happened." What worried them was that there was no news of the highlord's army in retreat. That could mean only a handful of things: that they had escaped north of the Rudd and were now in Clerkenwall, that they had been utterly destroyed at Tidewater, or that they had fled with such speed to Oldcastel that they were no longer in Pinedown or Seapoint at all.

One evening around the fire, when they were far from any town or ville, Rye turned to Robart and asked him, "What made you decide to go back?" Amalric was staring deep into the embers while Bertar snored in a pile of wet leaves.

"To Hazelby?" asked Robart. The last crackling tongues of flame smelled so thickly of autumn that, for just a moment, Robart could pretend he was a child again. That rich aroma reminded him of the house of his father, long long ago.

Robart frowned and looked into the darkness to gather his thoughts. "I don't know. Hazelby is my life. I don't suppose you'd understand it." He shook his head. "My farm..." Sire Gaumont's farm. No, Lord Seatower's. Whoever Highlord Marten chooses to replace him. "You know my meaning. The land I worked. It's in my bones." The sigh he breathed was powerful enough to send a whirlwind of sparks into the night sky.

The young nobly born lad eyed him strangely. "That's all? Seems a fool's reason to go beneath the Skraeling yoke. You'll excuse me if I'm a bit harsh, goodman. But I see a dark future ahead for you if you go down that road. Come instead with us, to meet the Lady Sorrel. The Wolfsblood is a dangerous man. This Sarkus, the king of the Skraeling invaders... he's no friend to you."

Robart fell the truth welling up inside him like a great bubble. It quickened his breath and sped his heart along its path. "I've chased after two women this autumn, and both have run as fast as they could away from me." Once the words were out, Rye's face split into a smile.

"Is that all? Priest and prophet, man, I could tell you a hundred similar stories!" He clapped Robart on the back and thrust a wineskin under his nose. "Drink, drink. It will make things well."

So Robart unburdened his conscience to Rye while Amalric watched on. When he was done, he felt as though the cavern of his heart had been scraped clear. Rye shook his head at the end of the tale and said, "You chose two women you knew would reject you. Perhaps you did it of a purpose, Robart, or the Divinity guided you so. Did you think of that?"

"How do you mean?" grumped the farmer.

Rye, drummed his fingers against the hilt of his sword in thought. "I mean, you chased a widow and a canonness. You knew from the start that neither would be excited for your affection. The Divinity was testing you, mayhaps."

"Or you didn't want to be with anyone," Amalric said. He was still shaken. His life had lurched so dramatically out of kilter that he could not, yet, come to grips with himself. To Amalric, the world was no longer upon its axis. His lordly father, Lyle of the Thornwood, was as solid as stone. He was a monument of the earth, as much a part of Erden as the ground, the sun, the sky. To imagine him lifeless, drowned, mutilated by foemen... "Perhaps you set traps for yourself."

This sounded like foolishness to Robart, who ignored it. In the morning they were going east again. Bertar began singing a song of courtly love, which Amalric silenced by throwing a stone at his back. All of a sudden, Robart began to recognize the land. "We're not far from Hazelby," he said in a wonder. He'd been walking in a mist for days. The thing that finally jolted him out of the strange half-dream of the journey was a tree trunk. It was an old and knotted plane tree, whorled with time. There, at its base, just below a bole the size of his head, were the stick-figure knights Robart had carved an eon ago with his brothers.

Amalric frowned deeply and drew his sword. Robart flinched from the sound of the blade. "If Hazelby is near, it's like as not that the Skraels are as well. Damn it, we've come all this way with no sign of the highlord or Lady Sorrel."

Bertar and Rye drew their blades. "Skraelings," Rye said, brow raised.

"We're only a little way from the village," Robart confirmed. "Maybe twenty minutes on foot."

Bertar gave Robart a level look. "You look wooly enough, goodman—you go and come back with the news, eh? You could pass for a Skrael if you braided your beard, I think. Come, you're half a warrior-god already." It was true. Robart hadn't shaved for months, and by now boasted a beard like those of the early desert saints. He could be a fresco on a temple wall.

He gave them a nod. "I will go. If I do not return come nightfall, there are Skraels in Hazelby and you must move on in secret."

"We'll not leave you, if they're in your hamlet, man!" Bertar said, pushing him playfully.

Robart shrugged and shouldered his rucksack. Yes, this was country he knew well. Each turn in the trail, each stone and root, the curve and sweep of the low Seapoint hills, even the distant smell of the sea... these were the senses of Robart's entire life, the memories that silted down into his bones over the long years. There, just there at the moss-covered boulder in the trail, was where Robart once pretended to be King Roald and fought off Aedric. Their blades were simple sticks, their shields wicker basket lids. But where was Aedric now? What had become of his father and brother? Gone, gone, down into the earth. Robart shuddered.

Next came the fields. They were well-tended and groomed, as all the farmlands of the Southold. The harvest was long over, and the stubble of the scythed corn jutted from the black earth. As Robart stumbled through the trees, he caught a glimpse of the new field on the hillside where once he'd plowed up the Dominion gold that set him on his journey. The ruin beyond was barely visible over the treetops.

When at last he came to the village, he saw it was much changed. There were watchmen set upon the trail, three men in knee-length tunics of deep crimson, each wearing the pelt of a wolf wrapped about his shoulders. Robart bowed his head and approached them, his mind racing for explanations. The Skraels would know that he hadn't been in the village. Who knew how long ago they'd captured it? But the men on the trail hardly spared him a second look. One, with a long and braided beard, glanced over Robart to confirm that he carried no weapons. That was all.

Robart's home was in good repair. The months of absence hadn't harmed it at all. He was glad for it, and ducked down through the doorway. His stores were gone, that was one thing, and it looked as though someone had been rummaging through his belongings. He frowned. How would he make it through the winter without the proceeds of the last harvest? This, he hadn't counted on.

Surveying the remains of his life, the overturned kettle and smashed barrel, the empty sacks where wheaten flower was once stored, he heard a thickly accented voice floating on the breeze. "The godsmen have decided that you can keep your faith, but you don't need your temples. After all, your god is a blind man!"

Robart clambered from his house and peered around the village. Aethelwyn's house was gone, as were a number of others. Burned timbers were all that remained. The shouting Skrael stood hard on the little stone temple, in its porch, and railed against a gathering of townsfolk. "You owe your lives to Haringer Keelwrite, and you'll do as he says. The temple will be given to the godsmen!"

He didn't know who or what these godsmen were, but he didn't much care for the Skrael's harsh words. The speaker was dressed like the Skraels upon the road—wolf's pelt over his shoulders and a long fur cloak. His hair was slicked back, glistening with pig's fat. He wore a long axe at his hip. Robart grunted. There were probably more of them up at Hazelby Hall. He couldn't stay, as much as he wanted to. He couldn't find out what had become of his Hazelby. If he did, Amalric and his companions would surely be hunted by the Skraels before nightfall.

Instead, he gathered his things. He took, from the tossed remains of his house, a few small mementos. There was silver hidden beneath a posthole by the door, which he dug up and scooped into his purse. His wife's comb, his son's little leather shoe, and a handful of spilled seedcorn from the grain barrel that the Skraels had burst. He took his three knives, and the long-handled scythe he'd spent a fortune on. The blade was rusting, but it would do in a pinch. With that, Robart left Hazelby for the second time, and this time he had no intention of returning.

The watchers eyed him again as he left, but again they said nothing. Robart came back to Amalric just before sunset and told his fellows the lay of the land. "The town is under the Skraels. It looks as though they've taken most of the harvest, from what I saw. They went through my house and stripped it bare of food."

"Then you'll come with us," Rye said. "You'll not stay here, with Sarkus Wolfsblood's men?"

Robart nodded slowly. "Aye," said he, "I'll come with you."

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